An “absolute” non-absolute is a paradox, even something of a tongue-twister to pronounce. Basically, it holds the following proposition: “It is sometimes right to do what is wrong.”
Obviously, if it is “sometimes” right to do what is wrong, then it cannot be always right to do only what is right. Nor can it be always wrong to do what is right.
These views still admit that a wrong and a right exist. The argument is whether they exclude each other, or whether one thing can change into its opposite.
Everyone is interested in knowing what side of the argument is true. Inevitably, what we decide on these issues will be reflected in how we live and how we justify ourselves to the world.
Pure relativism, however, denies any distinction between right and wrong. Nothing is really this thing or that thing. All things are constantly in flux, changing into something else. With relativist presuppositions, whatever we do is good simply because we do it.
The relativist, to protect his own logical consistency, must, nevertheless, maintain, overtly or covertly, the proposition that “It is wrong to claim that something is absolutely true or right.” To guarantee his relativism, the relativist thus depends on an absolute—“It is universally false to claim that anything is universally true.”
He contents himself to live in contradiction though such a life, seen for what it is, approaches incoherence, if not madness.
What must we conclude if the following proposition is true: “To do what is wrong is sometimes ‘right’?” If it is sometimes “right” to do something “wrong”, we cannot consistently maintain that it is never right to do wrong. But if it is “sometimes” right to do what is wrong, then we cannot argue that it is “never” right to do wrong.
On these shifting premises, all philosophic and revelational “thou-shalt-nots” have exceptions. Mercy, compassion, sincerity, conscience, and necessity are employed to relativize absolutes, to find an exception to any rule. The “right” to do this wrong becomes the exception that makes the absolute to be not absolute.
Why bring these murky issues up? They sound like an exercise in logic gone haywire.
Yet, the question of a “right” to do wrong lurks behind most recent discussions in both civil society and in the churches about abortion, gay marriage, communion for the divorced, contraception, and other issues. In recent decades, we have witnessed most of these issues pass from the category of things said to be always evil to things said to be positively good.
Symbolically, though they remain what they are, most of these topics have passed from designated evils to political “rights” that must be defended and promoted in the name of social justice or human well-being. The argument about a particular issue is really but an instance of the validity of the more general principle.
The intellectual integrity of our lives and institutions basically depends on the validity of the proposition that “It is never right to do wrong,” the proposition we most associate with Socrates. All the noble and heroic acts of our kind over the centuries depend on the abiding integrity of basic principles that do not change.
Over time, good men are related to one another because they were engaged in a like endeavor to uphold the good that they did not themselves “create”. Whether they lived or died in the effort, they sought to stand for what is right independently of their subjective “feelings” or “desires”.
All good men, as Augustine understood, ultimately belonged to the same city; all those who chose evil lived in another. The whole concept of martyrdom depends on validity of this affirmation.
When Benedict XVI, in his Regensburg Lecture, spoke of Muslim Qur’anic approval of violence, he was addressing this issue. The Muslim practice of declaring as martyrs those who are killed in killing others in the name of Allah is an affirmation of the right to do wrong. Still this view must be justified.
If we say that all those who are not Muslim are at war with Islam, if we add that by right everyone should be Muslim, then it is an easy step to justify the stark position that it is legitimate to kill the innocent since they are really guilty of not-believing. The argument then becomes not over the truth of relativism but over who decides what is true.
If a god can make what is wrong one day to be right the next day, we simply have to deny that there is any intrinsic order in things. There would be no set reality for our minds to know.
Ever since the beginning of moral reasoning, men have sought arguments to escape the absolute prohibition of freely doing evil if one so wanted or saw the occasion to do so. It is curious, but we cannot just “do” what is wrong. We must, in addition, give reasons why it is all right to do so.
It is when we give these reasons that we can see the incoherence in the endeavor to justify what is wrong. If we read of a murder or robbery, the first thing we want to know is: “Why did he do it?” That is, we want to know the reasoning process of the killer or robber.
And some pretty ingenuous ways of making this affirmation have been brought forth. I have always liked Machiavelli’s argument that if we do not allow ourselves the right to do wrong, we will simply put our fate in the hands of the worst types who can do wrong more skillfully than others. We have to “use” evil to avoid evil. It seems so comforting.
In 1977, Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “When the murder of an innocent life is called a right, then injustice has become justice.” This statement is a particular application of the more general principle that we have been considering. Anything that is evil cannot become its opposite, though someone who does evil can stop doing it.
Good and evil should be shown the respect due to their seriousness, to what they are. That is, each should be known for what it is.
It is an act of intelligence to call what is good, “good”, and what is evil, “evil”. It is also incumbent on intellect to be able to define what is evil as clearly as possible. It is not a virtue to do what is evil. But it is a virtue to know and state what evil is. Our mind is not complete until it is filled not only with the things that are but with the things we know that they ought not to be.
But what is “evil” always must manifest itself as the lack of something that is otherwise good. When something “lacks” something that it ought to have, it still may continue acting but in so doing, it will display what is wrong. This is true both of physical “evils”—say a dog with three legs—or moral evils—sins.
When he spoke of the divine positive law, that is, what believers were required to think or do as brought forth in revelation, Aquinas said that revelation made some things clear that were less easy to see as wrong by man’s reason alone. The function of revelation is not to counter or bypass reason but to see it in its true depths.
The classical position that Aquinas took on equity was that sometimes the circumstances did make what was prohibited by the letter of the law to be not the actual situation. This view, however, was not one of making what is evil to be good, but seeing the reality under the law in all its preciseness. In this sense, there is nothing new in moral tradition.
What is new is the affirmation that what is explicitly against the law in the clearest of circumstances be accepted as good. The issue over which most of the recent controversy has centered is the prohibition of divorce and the Church’s presumed obligation to defend the divine positive law that was given to it.
It goes without saying that reasons can be given that illustrate the dire consequences of divorce. The divine law was seen to indicate a basic conclusion not contrary to natural law but in accordance with it. The prohibition of divorce is the most obvious clarification of a principle of reason.
What is new is the development of theories that would supposedly show how the divine law as enunciated in the Gospels on this issue is capable of being changed into its opposite so that it is a good to be divorced in certain particular instances.
How is this change explained? The first step would be to explain mercy and compassion in such a way that does not require the cessation of the act that is contrary to the divine or natural law.
In traditional morality, mercy and compassion were related to the individual’s recognition that what he was doing was wrong. Forgiveness and reordering of lives required acknowledging the rightness of the law as handed down and the cessation of acts contrary to it.
Two theories in particular are candidates for the task of justifying this change by insisting that it is not embracing a contradiction. The first is simply the elevation of individual conscience to be the sole criterion of morality. Not a properly formed conscience but just one’s individual conscience’s judgment was all that was required.
The second approach proposes that Christ did not set up a Church held to keep the same basic doctrines over time. Rather what Christ did was look at the situation in His time to see what was best. He empowered his successors to do the same. They were to read the signs of the times in the context of what people of a given time or place needed.
Mercy and compassion would allow the leaders in the Church to do what Christ did, namely, to judge what was best for any contemporary time. This view, it is held, is really what Vatican II was about. Its opening to modern “rights” was what Christ would have recommended.
This approach, it is said, does not involve making right what is wrong because the wrongs of one time are the rights of another. It would thus be a “contradiction” if we did not accept modern rights which are grounded in a relativist conviction that the only law is the positive law of one’s era or place.
To conclude, briefly, the function of absolutes is that we know and preserve what we are. What is at stake in this reasoning about the elimination of absolutes is ultimately our very being as human and whether it is open to a reformation to make it something it is not.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.